December 31st, 2012 § § permalink
It’s a curious thing, winter. All year long we plan our snowman, paper snowflake and snow fort designs, then weather-strip the windows, stack the wood, wax the toboggan, varnish the snowshoes, prime the hot tub, knit a jazzy collection of sleeping caps, and await the slightest sign of it. The first season’s snow is welcomed with heartfelt cheers (unless it occurs during October like the past few years here in the Northeast. Rrrggh!) and nimble steps. The entire family springs into action—equipped within seconds to fight the freeze.
But winter wears out its welcome superfast. The second time the snow falls, happiness at getting snowy may not be quite as enormous as that very first episode. The third time it snows, hurrahs are tempered and the steps are deliberately slower—a prized mitten has been lost, the hot cocoa tin is empty. And by the tenth time, the happiness may be significantly less enormous, until snow begins to offer very little happiness at all, and instead evokes prickling memories of funky wet socks and a bone-penetrating chill.
It’s at this point that alternatives to getting snowy are considered. Energy turns to indoor stuff—the obstacle course, the scavenger hunt, the indoor tent, the box fort—that keep small people busy. Creativity is at its prime—marble mazes, body scrubs, oobleck, felted soap, salt dough, finger puppets, swittens, flipbooks, homemade snow cones—if there’s anything as magnificent as a picnic in a sofa tent in winter, well, I don’t believe you. Unless your posse is not getting along. Then, there is nothing as terrible.
I know this much is true. In the winter, there are days that require getting as far away from the house as possible. If you live within the Hudson Valley like me and you’ve found yourself in a pickle, there are neat places to go—local places that are kid-friendly during those tricky wintery-mix days. Here are just a few:
New York Botanical Garden, Bronx
Spanning 250 acres of Bronx Park, NYBG is home to an amazing collection of cozy indoor greenhouses. Don’t miss the Holiday Train Show (ending January 13th) or the upcoming Tropical Paradise exhibit (January 19th through February 24th) at the Haupt Conservatory.
Hudson River Museum and Planetarium, Yonkers
The largest museum in Westchester County, the HRM complex includes six art galleries, a planetarium and weekend family science programs. Don’t miss the evening planetarium shows or the current exhibition of award-winning children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney (ending January 13th).
Grand Central Terminal, Manhattan
A visit the busiest train station in the country can perk up the entire family. Grand Central celebrates its 100th birthday in 2013—honor it with a visit, a slice from Two Boots and an over-the-top chocolate babka from Zaro’s bakery. Now, that’s a party!
Bear Mountain Ice Rink, Stony Point
Show off your inner Michelle Kwan during one of Bear Mountain’s public skating sessions. Rent skates or bring your own for hours of walley jumps and one-foot axels— dramatic crimson red sparkly dress bedazzled with feathered flames is optional. If weather permits, follow up with a post-skate cool down at the nearby trailside museum.
Bronx Zoo, Bronx
Winter is prime-time viewing season for cold-weather animals. Siberian tigers, sea lions, snow leopards and polar bears consider winter weather ideal. Warm up afterward with hot cocoa at the Dancing Crane Café.
Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah
This magical gem situated in the midst of an evergreen forest has 10 to 12 beautifully curated exhibitions each year. Its children’s activity center allows space for budding young artists to explore and create their own work. It’s just a 10-minute walk from the Katonah train station—the perfect day trip. Don’t miss the current exhibit on 3D animation featuring original drawings, storyboards, props and movie clips from Blue Sky Studios (ending January 20th).
August 17th, 2012 § § permalink
The thing you can count on in life is that although summer seems endless when you’re little, it just zooms past you like a Bugatti Veyron EB 16.4 Super Sport when you’re big. I’ve missed you these past several weeks—a crazy month that entailed (Geez! Here we go again!) way too much to do within just a scrap of time.
Summer entails behind-the-scenes work—harvesting carrots, radishes, garlic and peas; juicing lemons for the stand; keeping squash tendrils at bay and tying up tomats; getting poison ivy; catching bullfrogs; making pesto; and then making more and more pesto. It’s just now that I glanced up and realized summer is just about through, and while I should be enjoying every last morsel of it and then licking its plate, I can’t help but dwell on the fact that fall is fast approaching.
Suddenly the days will be cooler and shorter, and we’ll pick the last sweet fall tomato. I feel it. Now it is here. The time of change. The greens of summer will yield to yellows, reds, and rich browns. Carefree days of p.j. pancake breakfasts, grass-stained knees, salty un-brushed hair, dirty hands, late night treats, backyard campouts, and lazy late-sleeping kids will soon silently surrender to organized chaos, breakneck breakfasts, sanitized hands, and scheduled playtimes and appointments.
Fall’s structured pick-ups and drop-offs trigger a new urgency for imaginative exploration and messiness. This is the ultimate challenge—finding time for your smallish people to examine life’s perplexing puzzles while enveloped by the grind of everyday. If you live nearby me, groups like Pottery on Hudson, Art Academy of Westchester, and Jacob Burns Center are certain to get creative juices flowing. And few things make me happier than discovering a new program like that of Robin Dellabough’s Rock, Paper, Scissors. Artistic ventures and active outdoor exploration merge in this hands-on Irvington cairn-building, finger-knitting, labyrinth-designing, wool-felting young-ish kids program.
Consider putting a handful of these events on your calendar:
I know this much is true: This small sliver of time when our kids are our kids—when we hold sticky popsicle hands while crossing Main Street or Beekman or Broadway, when we valiantly help save caterpillars from small puddles, make secret codes and cram pockets with special sparkly rocks—it is fleeting. So, drink up the last delicious drops of summer, and unwrap the small, secret gift of everyday.
June 11th, 2012 § § permalink
I think some people are born magicians
Hatching artful diversions
While we watch dazed
The bullet catch
The cabinet escape
The elastic lady
Seamless 5-ball cascade juggling
We stare mouths open
My firecracker friend Jenny is magical like this.
And now for the next trick!
Fava bean crostini
I am so blown away.
She has written it all down.
Voila! It’s HERE!
May 31st, 2012 § § permalink
Seed bombs are magical little nuggets of clay, compost and native seeds used to surreptitiously improve areas you’re unable to reach.
To determine native species in your area, ask a smart friend, or visit the Native Plant Database. My family and I live in the Northeastern U.S., and our seed bombs include (among other seeds) eastern red columbine, red milkweed, butterfly weed, New England aster, joe pye weed, lanceleaf coreopsis, blazing star, wild bergamot, sweet coneflower and rigid goldenrod. Select low-maintenance drought-tolerant native species that can thrive with intermittent care. As mentioned previously, choose seeds wisely. You certainly do not want to select invasive species that will threaten biodiversity. Consider species that create habitats for other native critters like butterflies and birds.
To determine your soil type, do the squeeze test: take a handful of moist (but not wet) soil and give it a firm squeeze. Most likely, one of three things will happen:
- The soil falls apart as soon as you open your hand. This means you have sandy soil.
- The soil holds it’s shape, and when you give it a little poke, it crumbles. This means you have loam. Perfect for a garden—it retains moisture and nutrients, but doesn’t stay soggy.
- It holds it shape, and when you give it a little poke, it sits stubbornly in your hand. This means you have nutrient-rich clay soil. Perfect for this project.
If you have dreams of a yard-ful of annuals, perennials and veggies, yet have the horrible misfortune of heavy clay soil (I can relate), today you are in luck. There is little need for clay amendment in your seed bomb recipe. Just head to your backyard and collect some clay soil. If your soil is sandy or loamy, however, you must add natural clay (often found in natural stream banks), terracotta clay powder or air-dry clay (found in art supply or health food stores).
Like making a mudpie, making a seed bomb is not an exact science. Use the below recipe as a guide, but your measurements needn’t be exact.
Seed Bomb Recipe:
3 parts clay (see note above)
3 parts dry organic compost or worm castings
1 part small native perennial seed
1 to 2 parts water (added by the Tbs)
The mixture should be moist, but not wet. Knead it with your hands, being sure to incorporate all seeds. Roll it into 1 to 2 inch balls. Set them on newspaper to dry for 2 days before using, or store on a sunny windowsill before throwing over a fence. Your seed bombs are ready to wreak havoc on green wastelands. Just throw and they will grow. Rich in nutrients, the clay and compost aid in germination and help strengthen plant root systems.
Nicely packaged in a handmade bag, seed bombs make fantastic handmade gifts for friends, family and teachers. Include a nice note or quote like one of these:
- Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant. –Robert Louis Stevenson
- Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them. –A.A. Milne
- Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy. –Shel Silverstein
- The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. –Roald Dahl
- Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart. –A.A. Milne
- Small as a peanut, big as a giant, we’re all the same size when we turn off the light. –Shel Silverstein
Once you have perfected the seed bomb, you may get the urge to branch out and attempt other small-scale unlawful acts. Do not mention my name during your interrogation!
Now, Joanie or Johnny Appleseed, plant something already!
May 20th, 2012 § § permalink
It’s time for unlawful mischief. It is time to plan swift small-scale attacks and organize aggressive mini mobile units to exhaust opposing forces. It’s time to take back orphaned land all but forgotten. To arm yourself with trowel, seeds, bulbs, saplings, and a vision of verdant green. It’s time to plant everywhere. Anywhere.
Fare-the-well sterile orphaned lots with rubble and rubbish—vacant unloved spots thrust between broken buildings and wildness! It’s time to whisper plans to each other—to break ground and work silently, stealthily—to race home and dance with heart exposed and arms in the sky. We will win! We will win!
Guerilla Gardening. Unbeknownst to you perhaps, this (slightly) unlawful silent underground movement—the unauthorized cultivation of plants on otherwise neglected public or private land in response to dwindling green space—is cropping up all around us. The idea is to reclaim green space, regardless of who actually owns it. Technically, guerilla gardening is illegal. You must accept the fact that some might view seedbombing as vandalism, just performed with plants instead of spray paint, rocks, matches or eggs. One part beautification, one part eco-activism, guerilla gardening is a burgeoning movement of green enthusiasts—free-range planters on a mission.
But, it’s more than just planting. It’s putting green where it’s not expected—putting something common in an unusual place or something uncommon in a usual place—surprising people and making them re-evaluate their position in the natural world.
Never underestimate the power of a plant.
Before grabbing your spade (Holy moly! I can’t wait!), ask yourself the following:
- Will you be part of an organized gang (launching your green thumbs into an unstoppable offensive of wax myrtle at Calumet and Main) or will you work solo, impulsively scattering shooting star seeds in pavement cracks on your way to the post office?
- Will you be a one-time guerillero, or will you be making this a regularly scheduled habit of dogwood debauchery? You’re far more likely to avoid trouble if you bring smallish people with you. This lends some credibility to your act.
- Will you work in the early morning, evening, or furtively at midnight? I highly recommend early morning hours to avoid detection from suspicious passersby. Or, you may opt to be discovered. If so, wear THIS.
Where Do I Plant?
If not working alone, you should meet with your trusty gardening team (mine has small, steady hands) and do some research. Look around you and consider a few unloved orphan spots close to home—empty pots or concrete planters, abandoned public gardens, vacant car parks—even a gap in pavement can serve as a modest blank canvas. Now, let’s be clear. I don’t advocate tossing seeds or planting plants in your neighbor’s weedy flowerbed, and you don’t need to plant a farm or a community garden. Just one plant will do for now. You do need a sunny spot and good soil. You may consider planting at first in a portable pot. Placed near a street sign or next to the barber’s door, this may be the ideal start to a career of gardening with intention. Of course, you should sneak by to water it every so often, or leave with it a kind sign: I’m yours. Water Me Please.
What Should I Plant?
If possible, find a generous gardening friend with a good plant or seed selection. Otherwise, purchase species from a local plant or seed supplier. Often, native wildflower seed mixes are available. Select low-maintenance drought-tolerant native species that can thrive with intermittent care. Choose perennial species wisely. You certainly do not want to select invasive perennials that will threaten biodiversity. Consider species that create habitats for other native species like butterflies and birds. For a list of recommended native species in your area, visit the Native Plant Database.
The following are your planting options:
Native Bulbs: Usually planted in the fall, these miraculous little storehouses are simple to plant and bring a spring surprise.
Native Plants, Shrubs and Trees: Just pop in a plant. Choose hardy, preferably perennial native plants that are easy to maintain.
Annual Plants with Big “Wow” Factor: Choose plants that will catch someone’s eye—plants with a powerful punch.
Classic Clay Seed Bombs: These little fistfuls of compacted clay, compost and native perennial wildflower seed break down over time and eventually plants sprout in place of dirt, weeds and invasive species. Seed bombs are used to surreptitiously improve areas that a guerillero is unable to reach. Locked vacant lots or roadside embankments—all are promising native plant nurseries. Keep in mind that seed germination is highly dependent on water. Keep track of the weather. Scatter the seed bombs on the ground—over a fence onto an empty lot—right before an early spring rainy spell to ensure germination.
Pre-made seed bombs may be purchased HERE and HERE. Or, check back in a few days for my GREAT GUERILLA SEED BOMB RECIPE.
Please send me your before and after photos–I’d love to see.
Now, go forth and garden!
May 7th, 2012 § § permalink
When I am an old woman, thin white crazy hair like whispers, I will wear electric green. Today I walk in the woods—your smallish calloused hand in mine. You say someday you’ll live here. In a cave. I will visit you and bring berries.
Long before you were here, we ran wild deep into the trees, and cut willow whips and made critter traps with pocketknives and hatchets. We skateboarded home, poison ivy all up our arms, tadpoles in hand, helmet-less. We piled into old 8-track tape rust wagons, small brown limbs and inner tubes everywhere, no seatbelts, no sunscreen. Heads out of windows like pups licking air.
You are amazed.
But we did not crash. We did not die.
Don’t use your teeth, you will crack them, I say. Wash your hands. Don’t fall. Don’t throw rocks. Zip up. Watch your thumb. Check for ticks. Don’t poke your eye out.
Today we laugh, you say, mouths open wide. Today we climb the highest tree, higher than any squirrel, and lean our bare backs against the bark. And listen for waxwings. Way up there. Today and tomorrow we do not care.
You say great ideas come from great walks.
And just like that you have changed me.
April 22nd, 2012 § § permalink
This recipe is super easy. The peels taste just like sweet lemon drops. You’ll be certain to have your kitchen stocked with a jar or two of these from now on—ready to grab for that upcoming day hike or camping trip. You may love them plain, with only a dusting of sugar, but in the end you may opt to dip your peels in chocolate for extra yumminess. Look out! These peels disappear fast!
You will need:
5 organic, un-waxed thick-skinned lemons (or 5 limes, 2 oranges, or 1 large grapefruit)
2 cups sugar
¾ tsp cream of tartar
Semisweet chocolate (optional)
What to do:
- Wash the lemons and slice off both ends with a knife.
- Make 4 equally spaced lengthwise slices just through the peel of each lemon.
- With your fingers, pry each section of peel off each lemon, leaving as much white pith on the fruit as possible.
- In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups water to a simmer.
- Add the peels to the simmering water. Simmer for 2 minutes and strain with a colander.
- Rinse the peels with fresh water and wash out the pan with soap and water.
- Repeat 2 more times, each time using fresh water to rinse peels and saucepan, and fresh cold water to refill saucepan.
- The pith of the fruit has a bitter taste. If the peels are very thick, use a spoon or butter knife to scrape off most of the pith from the peel. This should rid the peels of bitterness. But don’t remove all the pith from the peels—it will provide some structure and tastiness.
- Combine 2 cups sugar, 2 cups water and ¾ tsp cream of tartar. Slowly bring to a simmer, whisking often. The sugar syrup should be clear before it reaches a simmer. Be careful—this liquid is hot!
- Add the peels to the sugar syrup (add enough water to completely cover the peels) and simmer gently for about 1 hour, until the mixture forms a thick syrup and the peels are translucent and tender. The temperature should be about 230 degrees.
- To test for doneness, lift a peel slice from the syrup with a slotted spoon, let it cool slightly and then sample. If you can easily bite through the peel, it’s done. If not, continue simmering peels until tender. If the syrup becomes too thick, add additional water.
- Turn off heat, gently remove peels from the sugar syrup with slotted spoon and lay separately on a wire rack set on an edged baking sheet. Watch out! The peels will be very hot.
- Once cooled, cut each peel into thin strips (no wider than ¼ inch). These can be great knife practice for smallish hands, but be sure to work carefully. Set peels separately on a clean wire rack to dry overnight.
- A few pieces at a time, toss each peel in a sugar-filled bowl to coat.
- Store in an airtight container.
Candied peels are best used at least two days after you’ve made them—they won’t have dried sufficiently if used right away. After no longer gooey to the touch, they should be kept refrigerated in an airtight container. They will last several weeks (assuming they are not gobbled up before then by unicorns).
And try this:
- Dip peel ends in thinned royal icing or tempered chocolate and place on parchment-lined baking sheet to cool.
- For orange peels, try adding ground ginger or nutmeg to the sugar.
- Chopped, the candied peels may be used as a topping to pudding, custard, ice cream, pie, fresh granola or cookies.
- Remaining citrus and cooled liquid and may be used as simple syrup to make amazing homemade lemonade Just add juice of 5 lemons (leftover from the above recipe) and water to taste and refrigerate.
- Or, on the eve an especially long day, concoct a comforting cocktail. Cool the remaining citrus and liquid, and serve with your spirit of choice.
Note: I originally published a version of this (sans above cocktail tip, of course) in Whip Up’s Action Pack Magazine for kids (Issue 6). Chock full of quality projects for creative curious kids who love to do stuff, Action Pack is a downloadable high-quality ad-free e-magazine by Kathreen Ricketson. Diagrams and photos illustrate each boredom-busting step-by-step kid-friendly project—make a lemon battery, a citric acid fizz popper, cinnamon sticks wooden jewelry and handmade chalk. For more hands-on projects like this one, click HERE.
March 25th, 2012 § § permalink
It’s been way too long. Truth is, the school garden is in full swing and I’ve been busy getting small hands dirty—turning over the winter cover crop, preparing the beds, planting sugar snap peas, packaging and selling spring seeds—it is that time of year. Time to get dirty…. and then time to get cleaned up!
And nothing does the trick better than a handmade sugar scrub. Upon completion of this practical project, you will have a novel and crafty cleanser-softener-smoother-moisturizer combo guaranteed to tempt even the most stubborn grimy kid into the tub. In fact, you and your crafty team will be inclined to make oodles of these scrubs for deserving friends, dedicated teachers or for yourself—yes, even you are entitled to a complete body exfoliation with invigorating natural citrus scent. Not only will your skin be healthy, it will feel smooth and smell delicious.
Natural sugar scrubs are fun, simple, and inexpensive concoctions. No cooking is necessary, and most ingredients can be found right in your kitchen cupboard. Make a big batch, keep some, and give some away.
You’ll need the following:
- A small, clean plastic or glass container with a lid. A short, squat, wide container is best. This could be found in your recycling bin or at a thrift store.
- Sugar. Coarse natural brown or white granulated (raw sugar works great), or a mix of both will work to exfoliate the skin. Do not use soft brown baking sugar.
- Oil. Any oil that originates from a nut or fruit will work as a moisturizer, and will leave your skin soft and hydrated. Light apricot, olive, avocado, jojoba, coconut are good choices. Do not use cooking oil like corn oil—this will make a funky smell and a too-slick feel.
- Natural additives. You may add a small amount of any of the following: citrus juice (orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit), honey, aloe vera, vitamin E oil, essential citrus oil (sweet orange, lemon, grapefruit)
What to do:
Before starting, remind everyone that some ingredients used can sting eyes and that the resulting concoction smells really yummy but tastes really horrible. Yuck!
In general, you’ll want to measure 2 parts sugar to 1 part oil. Add enough oil to turn your sugar into the perfect slushy snow mixture. Pour all ingredients into a small bowl. Stir until ingredients combine. Pour into clean container. Label your container. Cover the label with transparent packing tape.
Now for the fun part:
At the sink, or in the tub or shower, scoop a small amount of the scrub into your hand and massage gently onto your damp skin for a minute to exfoliate and moisturize. Wash it off with water. Pat your skin dry with a clean towel.
You can keep the remaining scrub in the sealed jar. Use the sugar scrub no more than once a week.
For a pick-me-up: An easy way to make your scrub even more luxurious is to add a few drops of your favorite essential oil. Try citrus oil like grapefruit, sweet orange or tangerine.
For extra-dry skin: Add a small amount of Aloe vera gel or vitamin E oil as a moisturizer.
Nice mixes to try: Grapefruit and peppermint; orange, clove and lemon; almond and orange.
Add herbs or flowers to the mix: Shredded ginger, orange peel, lavender flowers, linden flower—all of these are great options.
Things to keep in mind:
- Because you can never be too careful when it comes to your skin, before you use the scrub, do a patch test on the inside of your arm to see how your skin reacts.
- Do not use citrus oil (such as sweet orange, lemon or grapefruit) on your skin before you plan to spend the day in the sun. Your skin is more likely to get sunburned.
- Do not use on your face or neck. And never use it on irritated skin. If you have a sunburn, rash or cut, skip the scrub.
- Also, as with anything that contains oil, a body scrub will make the tub or shower slippery. Do not apply the scrub to the bottoms of your feet while in the shower. You may slip. Also, be sure to give the tub its own “scrub” when you’re done.
BODY SCRUB RECIPES:
O.J. Coconut Scrub
In this scrub, sugar granules gently exfoliate the skin. The combined power of coconut, mango and orange provide nourishment.
1 ½ cup sugar
½ cup coconut oil
2 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
¼ cup mango puree
To do: Chop mango into small pieces without peel. Place in blender to puree. Mix sugar into coconut oil in a small bowl and stir well to combine. Stir in orange juice and mango puree.
Grapefruit, Aloe Vera Scrub
This scrub makes your skin feel moisturized and fruity fresh.
1 ½ cup sugar
4 Tbs jojoba oil
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs fresh grapefruit juice
2 Tbs aloe vera gel
2 drops grapefruit essential oil
To do: In small bowl, combine sugar, grapefruit oil and juice. Stir well to combine. Add remaining ingredients. Stir well.
Sweet Orange and Lime Scrub
This tropical scrub exfoliates and leaves skin silky smooth.
1 cup sugar
4 Tbs coconut oil
2 Tbs fresh lime juice
6 drops vitamin E oil
2 drops sweet orange essential oil
To do: Mix sugar and oil in a small bowl. Stir to combine. Add remaining ingredients and stir well to make a paste.
Honey and Orange Scrub
Honey is a natural humectant, which means it attracts moisture and keeps it where it should be—under your skin. This scrub hydrates, moisturizes and protects your skin.
1 cup sugar
4 Tbs dark organic honey
2 Tbs fresh orange juice
To do: Mix ingredients until you have a smooth paste.
Salty Sugary Scrub
This scrub leaves your skin soft and moist. Just perfect for dry skin.
½ cup coarse brown sugar
½ cup sea salt or kosher salt
2 Tbs coconut oil
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
2 Tbs dark organic honey
To do: Mix all ingredients until you have a smooth paste.
I originally published this article in Whip Up’s Action Pack Magazine for kids (Issue 6: Zap and Zest). This downloadable high-quality ad-free e-magazine by Kathreen Ricketson is chock full of quality projects for creative curious kids who love to do stuff. Diagrams and photos illustrate each boredom-busting step-by-step kid-friendly project—make a lemon battery, a citric acid fizz popper, cinnamon sticks, wooden jewelry and handmade chalk! For more hands-on projects like this one, click HERE.
January 18th, 2012 § § permalink
When my workday has ended, and I have carefully put to bed my small spicy accomplices, I look forward to at least a light snack and a footrest in recognition of my achievement. It would be a shame if this did not happen. I am sorry to say, this is the case with many hardworking beings—nimble industrious laborers who endlessly whirl about finding food, making babies and cultivating crops only to return to, well, an empty snack bowl and an unfurnished apartment.
Small beings have the same basic needs as you and I—food, water, a place to live, and a healthy environment. Amphibians, birds, small mammals, and beneficial insects—many of these busy little creatures, neither destructive nor aggressive, are an important part of our ecosystem. However, due to fast-paced environmental change and habitat reduction, it has become increasingly more challenging for them.
It is easy to encourage these critters and to be good neighbors. Generally, larger areas with diverse vegetation have greater species diversity, but a well-laid-out modest backyard with a variety of food, cover and water can entice a wide assortment of wildlife. The relative location of food, water and cover is what creates usable wildlife habitat. Below are some simple steps to take.
- Do nothing. Allow half of your garden to remain unmanicured. Leave some wild, untamed areas in your backyard. Allow the weeds to grow up and the insects to move in.
- Go organic, or minimize pesticide use. Use compost, not chemicals.
- Reduce the size of your lawn. Instead, plant a wide variety of flowering native plants to attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, ground beetles, rove beetles, lacewings and praying mantises. Choose long-blooming, nectar-rich flowers and plants that bloom at different times of the season.
- Feed them and they will come. Plant bushes and trees with edible fruit. Don’t snip dead flowers. The seeds within them provide essential food for many animals. Leave fallen trees or leaves in place whenever possible to allow birds to hunt for insects. Keep birdfeeders stocked with thistle, safflower and black oil sunflower seed. If you start feeding, don’t stop during the winter months.
- Landscape with features that appeal to you. A bed of vibrant flowers, a shady spot under a tree, a privacy hedge, colorful fall berries, and evergreen winter shrubs are pleasing to everybody, including backyard critters.
- Add a birdbath. Birds need a dependable supply of fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing. The best birdbath mimics nature—gently sloping, shallow, and shady at ground level. Change the water once a week.
- Provide nooks in the backyard with a variety of nesting material. Hang concentrated stashes in tree crevices, berry baskets, or mesh bags. Fallen leaves, unraked twigs, dry grass, straw, pet fur, sheep wool, feathers, bark strips, pine needles, small sticks and twigs, yarn, string, and thin strips of cloth all make excellent nest materials.
- If you have a birdhouse, add a roost box. Birds only nest during spring and summer. Overwintering birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and small woodpeckers require large nesting cavities during winter months.
Be patient. Depending on your property size, it may take several years to see all the desired results. Make a plan now, and, come spring, put out a vacancy sign. Give vegetation time to become established, and the tenants will move in.
Soon, you will receive tiny handwritten messages regarding extra storage space, laundry and parking facilities; high-pitched calls about hooking up teeny home theater components and keeping microscopic exotic pets; and little notes about room service and spa treatments.
January 4th, 2012 § § permalink
Almost two years ago, through a local educational grant, I was among a group of parents, students, teachers and administrators who helped establish a vegetable garden at our grade school. We designed and installed a 25’ x 40’ garden with nine rectangular wood-framed beds, permanent above- and below-ground fencing, and an underground high-efficiency drip irrigation system.
Today, our small gardening program provides benefits that reach well beyond the garden gate. Our small garden helps teach an environmental ethic, helps demystify the concept of food production, and helps get kids really dirty. In December, we harvested the hearty carrots and turnips and watched our winter cover crop come up. In January, we keep small busy hands warm inside. Now we plant paperwhites.
Bulbs are miraculous little storehouses that hold not only a future flower, but also a stockpile of plant fuel required to produce an entire season of blooms. Here in New York’s Hudson Valley, typical hardy flower bulbs and the bulbs we eat (onions, shallots, garlic) require a chilling period before bloom or harvest time. Cool temperatures spark an internal biochemical response that triggers the embryonic flower to start its development. Most flower bulbs (tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, Dutch iris, scilla) require 16 to 18 weeks of cold before the flower is fully formed. Once the blooms have faded, the bulb is nourished by the foliage and is equipped to produce flowers next season. It is a self-sustaining cycle.
Unlike most bulbs, Narcissus papyraceus is uncomplicated and quiet and doesn’t ask for much. Native to the southeastern Mediterranean’s warm climates, paperwhites are coaxed into indoor bloom with very little effort. Kept evenly moist in a bowlful of pebbles in the sun, they are reliable to the point of being foolproof. The outcome: fast-blooming star-shaped clusters of delicate white sweet-scented flowers—instant gratification in the dead of a northeast winter.
Paperwhites will bloom about 4 to 6 weeks after planting, so if you’d like flowers for special occasions, plan accordingly. For continuous bloom throughout the winter, plant bulbs every two weeks from now until mid-February.
How to plant paperwhites:
- Choose firm top size unsprouted bulbs, free of blemishes or discoloration. Select a watertight container 4- to 5-inches in height. Be creative—a small salad bowl, glazed pottery, clear glass vase or wide-mouthed jar is perfect for the job. Choose a size that’s wide enough to hold a small quantity of bulbs shoulder to shoulder.
- Spread a layer of clean river rocks, marbles, glass beads, or gravel along the bottom of the container. Gently position the bulbs, pointed end up, on top of the medium. Paperwhites prefer a big crowd, so squeeze them in. The more the merrier! Add another layer of anchoring material (rocks, etc.) to fill any gaps. Cover the bulbs up to their shoulders, leaving the pointed tips exposed.
- To avoid bulb rot, fill the container with just enough water so it contacts the roots, but not the bulb. Dutch farmers say to keep the water close enough so the bulb can “sniff” it, but not touch it.
- Set the container in a cool location with indirect light. Replenish the water every 2 to 3 days. Be patient. When roots develop in 2 to 3 weeks, move the container to a sunny window with southern exposure. Once the plants flower, remove the bulbs from direct sunlight and place them in a cooler place with indirect or diffused light.
- Ahhh! Spring in the midst of winter!